Understanding Japanese Body Language

Understanding Japanese Body Language

by Azra Syakirah • 11 min read

Communication in Japan can be like a jigsaw puzzle – you get the pieces but you have to put them together. That’s all part and parcel of their high-context culture.

Language barrier aside, having to decipher one’s body language which is fully linked to one culture can be a nightmare – especially if you have no idea what to look out for in the first place.

To tackle that, we first need to grasp the concept of Japanese body language – and this comprehensive guide will help you to understand everything from body and hand gestures to facial expressions. You’ll be a master of the Japanese non-verbal body language in no time, even if you’ve not yet aced the verbal language.

6 Common Body Gestures

Action speaks a thousand words – nothing better depicts that than the body gestures of Japanese body language. Even a slight twitch can mean something to Japanese people. Of course, we’re not going to list down every single body gesture to look out for – some are already universal. We’re going to take a look at the common ones and most unique to Japanese people.

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1. Bowing

Bowing is not only a form of Japanese body language but is a crucial part of Japanese etiquette. Regardless of the occasion, both formal and informal settings, you have to bow and prepare to be bowed to. Depending on the situation, bowing can represent a couple of different things such as greetings, gratitude, and apologies just to name a few.

There are a couple of things you should note about bowing. The first is that this simple ritual should not be rushed. You can’t just walk and bow – it’s not really something you can do on-the-go. It’s considered rude if you do that and it’s best to stop before bowing. To get the complete rundown on bowing in Japan, check out this guide here.

When you do bow, be careful of your posture. A relaxed and casual one can be misunderstood as disrespectful or lack of interest. Try not to put more weight on one foot than the other or try to look forward at the person when you bow. Keep your arms in your pockets, behind your back, on your lap, or with palms at the heart level together. Never have your arms hang lifelessly or crossed in front of your chest. Clenching of fists is also a strict no-no – you’re kind of telling the other person that you’re suppressing anger if you do that.

The last thing to note is that when you are bowing, don’t talk. The conversation is not particularly acceptable when you bow. Surely, you can wait till your back is straightened up to continue your conversation.

There are three types of bowing and the varying degrees have different meanings. Let’s take a look at them.

15º Bow

A 15º bow, also known as eshaku, is when you’re slightly bowing – kind of like a nod but rather than just doing with your head, you’re also moving your upper body. This kind of bowing translates to a casual greeting or salutation, and is used more informally than others like when you’re passing by someone at work or school as a casual greeting.

Eshaku can sometimes be used as an apology, too – the whole idea of this type of bow is that it’s extremely casual. You don’t use this as a normal type of greeting bow. You do see this being used in formal and business settings, but it usually follows a proper greeting as repetition.

To do this bow, you tilt forward of about 15º from your normal posture. I know we mentioned previously that it’s not okay to look at a person when you bow, but in eshaku, you maintain visual contact with the person you’re greeting. It’s better to have your hands together in front of you but it’s also fine if you don’t.

30º Bow

This next type of bow requires you to tilt your upper body and head to a 30º angle. Also known as keirei, this bow translates to a respectful salutation and is used in formal settings to greet, thank or apologize to someone. When you need to communicate with someone respectfully, like a client, customer, or boss, this is a gesture of respect in Japanese body language.

Unlike the previous type of bow, you don’t look at the person you’re bowing to – you look at the floor. Your arms should be kept at the sides of your body, front or back of the body in a respectful manner of covering one hand over the other. Make sure your back is straight and you’re not just tilting your head.

Keirei is used by staff members when they greet and bid farewell to customers at a shop or hotel. You’ll commonly see this type of bow when businessmen are thanking or apologising to their clients or higher-ups.

45º Bow

The most extreme bow of them all is the saikeirei – the 45º bow. On some occasions, it can be up to 60º! This type of bow is the most respectful salutation which can also be used to project deepest regrets in an apology.

If you’ve done something extremely bad at work, quickly stand up straight and then tilt your upper body to a 45º angle while keeping your head down. Make sure your hands are at your sides when you do this. Saikeirei is a formal style of bowing you most often see and do in a business setting.

I have to admit – I do see some people bow all the way down to a 90º angle. They must be sincerely sorry for what they have done.

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2. X Signs

Specially used to combat misunderstandings between locals and foreigners, the X sign gesture is used in Japan as part of the Japanese body language. If you’ve traveled here before, chances are you’ve probably been on the receiving end of this at least once. The thing is, if you don’t know what it means, it might confuse you even more.

There are two types of X signs in Japanese body language: the first is when the figure X is being demonstrated by using arms. Their arms are crossed in front of their body and you get a big giant X. This translates to saying “no” or that something is not prohibited.

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For example, if you want to enter a particular area and a guard walks up to you with his arms crossed in an X shape, he’s telling you that you cannot go in there.

The other type of X sign is one made using fingers only. Don’t think that this is a way of saying no subtly – it has a whole different meaning, in fact. X with your fingers is to tell the waiter or waitress at a restaurant that you want the bill.

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3. O Signs

If there’s an X, there’s an O. While I personally don’t experience this body language as much as the X sign, it’s still one of the more prominent ones. Using arms as well and linked in a round shape above the head, the O sign translates to approving something or that something is allowed.

If the same guard who walks up to you gives you the O sign instead of the X sign, then you’re allowed into the place.

It’s not the same meaning as making the O shape with your fingers – with the thumb connecting with the other fingers. This one is the gesture for “money”.

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4. Arms Folded

If you’re in a meeting and one of your clients has his arms crossed or folded in front of his chest with his eyes closed, don’t misinterpret it as disrespect and lack of interest. In fact, this Japanese body language has quite the opposite meaning – he’s merely thinking long and hard about something.

When a Japanese person does this, they are reflecting on their thoughts and opinions and usually require silence. So if your meeting room drops dead silence and everyone has their arms crossed, don’t be alarmed – they’re just thinking.

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5. Flexing

No, you don’t see men flexing their biceps only at the gym but also on the streets of Japan. Usually, they’ll have a hand touching the flexed bicep as well. I know, I know – it’s a bit show-offy but it’s their way of saying “I can do it” or “challenge accepted”.

I’ve never seen a girl doing it, so it might be just a guy thing, but hey, I’m all for gender equality. So if you’re a girl and want to do it, go ahead – I’m sure the girls in anime do it as well and they’re all super cool.

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6. A Hand Behind the Head

Sometimes understood as embarrassment, others as an indirect way of saying no, this hand behind the head gesture is a popular one. You probably have seen this body gesture before in anime or J drama.

If someone has done something embarrassing and they were caught doing it, like accidentally tripping on a pebble, they’re probably going to naturally have a hand behind their head and let out a small chuckle.

But if you’re asking a waiter if there’s a specific dish on the menu available but it’s not, the waiter might have the same body language as the previous situation, but this one translates to say no.

Depending on the situation, this gesture can have different meanings.

4 Common Hand Gestures

Moving on, we have hand gestures. Sometimes body language doesn’t necessarily mean just the body, you know. These hand gestures can be accompanied by words for elaboration to make situations clearer, but it’s best to know what it means without them.

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1. Pointing

Japanese people are not one for pointing, especially at others. It’s okay if you’re pointing to objects and places, but not to someone else’s face. Pointing at their own face, on the other hand, is totally okay. You’ll see most often someone pointing to their nose – not to talk about noses but to refer to themselves.

So next time, when you want to refer to yourself, kick that natural habit of pointing to your chest and try pointing at your nose instead!

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2. Palms Together (Prayer Position)

Another common hand gesture that’s part of the Japanese body language is having palms pressed together in front of their chest in the prayer position. If you’ve visited temples and shrines, you would know that this is the gesture that people do when praying. Japanese people also do that for praying, but it’s also a hand gesture for something else.

When asking for someone’s help, they would often have this hand gesture out while saying “please” or “onegaishimasu” in Japanese. I’d say it’s like showing a puppy dog face to your friend so that they’ll give in to you – this hand gesture has somewhat of the same effect.

Sometimes, this is also used as a casual apology – don’t do this to your bosses, though. In situations where you forgot to take out the trash, you can casually apologize by saying sorry along with this gesture.

3. The Waving Hand

On top of waving the hand to say hello or bye with your palms facing out towards the other person – a universal gesture that we all understand – the Japanese have other types of waving hand gestures.

One prominent one is having the palm faced downwards and waving back and forth towards the floor – like the “maneki neko”, the beckoning cat. It looks more like someone’s shooing you away, but this Japanese body language is actually gesturing you towards them. It’s like saying “come here”.

Another type of hand waving gesture is when they have it waving in front of their face – as if waving away a bad stench. No, you don’t smell, don’t worry. This Japanese body language translates to saying “no” as well. Some people would use it to politely decline a compliment like “oh, I’m not pretty at all”. Come on, Yuki, just accept the compliment!

Sometimes, this hand waving gesture is used to say that they can’t do something. The “no” meaning varies depending on the situation it’s used in.

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4. The Chopping Hand

If you have someone chopping the air with their hand, they’re not practicing their kitchen skills – it’s their way of saying “excuse me, I’m coming through” or “excuse me, I’m interrupting”. Say you’re on a crowded train – pretty possible in Japan even during this global pandemic – and someone wants to get off at a stop. He’ll have his hand out with the palm facing one side and the hand moving up and down in a chopping motion to request for some space for him to move through.

I have friends who would interrupt a conversation with this exact motion – I’ll be talking with another person and someone would come in between us, chopping the air and pause, before continuing to join the conversation.

So you see, the chopping hand gesture can be used in all sorts of situations.

3 Common Facial Expressions

The last category is facial gestures. The body language in this category is more straightforward than the others, in my opinion. There are a couple of things that the Japanese would communicate with their facial expressions rather than saying out loud – here’s a couple of the common ones where you can learn how to hear the unspoken words.

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1. One Eyebrow Raise

I’ve gotten this a couple of times when I’m speaking too fast and someone can’t understand me – they raise their eyebrow. Just one eyebrow. When someone does this to you, they’re not only telling you that they don’t understand but also asking you to repeat.

Occasionally, you would get the scrunched-up brow instead of the raised eyebrow, but they both mean the same thing.

Most of the time, I’ll rephrase my words or speak slower when this happens.

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2. Eye Contact

Don’t be offended when a Japanese person doesn’t meet your eye contact. In Japan, prolonged eye contact is not something people are used to – instead, constant glances around to break the eye contact is much more preferred.

So if the person you’re talking to is not looking at your eyes but instead other parts of your face or even away from you, don’t misinterpret it as disinterest but rather just part of their cultural body language.

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3. The Head Tilt

Oh, the head tilt. If I don’t get a raised brow or scrunched up brows, I get a head tilt. This also means that the person doesn’t understand what you’re trying to say and asks for you to repeat it.

Are You Raising Your Brow Or Tilting Your Head?

Sometimes body language, in general, is difficult to read – but hey, at least Japanese body language has a consistent set of gestures that are common and decoded here in this article. You’re one step closer to mastering the non-verbal language of Japanese communication!

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